November 30, 2018
Table of Contents
Agile Transformations are a popular activity right now. If you are an agile leader, you may be wondering what role you play in an Agile Transformation.
This detailed article defines what is meant by Agile Leader and Agile Transformation and why organizations today are pursuing Agile Transformation. The article also explores in detail the Agile Leaders role and how they lead agile transformations with 4 key activities and 8 Agile Leader characteristics. Finally, the article serves as a blueprint for Agile Transformation.
An agile leader is a person who fosters agile ways of thinking and working, creates an environment where teams can do their best work, and champions agile throughout their organization.
Definitions of Agile Leaders vary widely and this is an area where certification is new and evolving. The Scrum Alliance describes their Certified Agile Leader Training as helping leaders be effective in complex, uncertain, and rapidly changing environments. It seems that this describes most leaders today!
An Agile Transformation is the process of transforming the organization’s structure and culture to one that fosters true business agility. This impacts organizational structures, and the way work is completed, managed, and measured.
This is in contrast to a more limited exercise of an Agile pilot or a transition to Scrum, which is a small experiment constrained in one part of the organization. The IT department can implement Scrum but that doesn’t make it an Agile Transformation.
There is a significant difference between those that are now “doing agile” and the idea of actually “being agile”. Agile Transformation is a deep change in mindset and organizational culture.
For more on the differences between Agile Transformation and Agile Adoption, please see 5 Key Differences between Agile Adoption and Agile Transformation.
Great question. Many organizations today are running Agile pilots or are attempting an Agile Transformation. They want the flexibility and business agility that Agile methods promise. But many of those organizations pursuing agile transformation lack a crisp and clear understanding of why. Often when I ask why, I get a mix of reasons:
As we will explore a little later, having a very clear “Why” is really important. John Kotter includes both vision and a sense of urgency as two of his eight essential elements of a change program. See Kotter’s Leading Change.
Now that you’ve read this far, I guess it is safe to let you know this key insight. Success with an Agile Transformation is anything but easy. Most organizations have attempted an Agile Transformation at least once and frequently more. And many have failed. So, going in without a clear sense of what the leaders hope to achieve, or without a realistic plan or with only weak support is almost certain to result in failure.
Leaders may say they want to be Agile the same way they say they want to be thinner or better looking. That overlooks all the hard work required.
Leaders play a key role in the Agile Transformation. In many organizations, there is one key person who serves as the Agile Transformation Leader. It is only with a solid understanding of this critical role that the transformation will succeed and deliver the promised benefits. So, let’s explore what it means to be an Agile Transformation Leader.
The following major sections provide additional details:
Enjoy the Journey!
Over the last 6 years, I have worked with many clients who are running Agile Pilots or attempting an Agile Transformation. There is a wide variance in the approaches that these leaders have taken and a wide variance in the results.
Which got me wondering whether leaders really understand their role in an Agile Transformation or the importance of their leadership during this organizational change.
I don’t know if there is one perfect way to approach this. I do know that there are a handful of things leaders did that were common to all the successful Agile transformations. I’ve grouped those things into the following 4 categories:
Perhaps one of the most important things that the Agile Leader does is to establish high-Performing teams. But what is included in that?
I’ve written extensively on how to create high-performing teams. See my blogs here, here, and here. I believe that there are 7 key things that make teams effective and lead to high performance. Effective Teams are:
Handoffs are a key area of risk and knowledge scatter. Great leaders recognize the difficulties with handoffs and establish teams so that handoffs are reduced or eliminated. This is closely tied to the cross-functional aspect mentioned above. Unless you build teams that cross organizational silos, you will have to have handoffs to accomplish the work.
Tip: Use Value Stream Mapping to identify your value chains that go from idea to implemented in production. In Lean terms, this is called the Concept to Cash. Map out your current state and identify all the various people that are required to create value for your customers. Identify the handoffs and wait states, and then work to eliminate those.
Team focus is related to having dedicated team members. If team members are spread across multiple teams, those team members will not be as dedicated and will be less likely to accomplish their goals. They will also waste more time participating in meetings and writing status emails about the work that they don’t have time to do because they are in meetings and writing status emails.
It is better to create smaller, focused teams who can be 100% dedicated. Most of the arguments for why this is not possible reflect past policies that were aimed at cost reduction or retention of specialized resources. These will conflict with focused teams (and undermine overall productivity and agility).
Great leaders stop planning by the person. Gone are those spreadsheets that show a list of projects cross-referenced against people with various percentage assignments. Instead, agile leaders establish long-standing or persistent teams and then they bring the work to the team.
Agile Leaders use the team’s actual velocity to forecast how much work can be accomplished. This turns out to be much more predictable than using resource allocation to traditional project plans. See my related blog post Using Reality-Based Forecasting in Agile Project Management.
One of my favorite examples of good leadership comes from a large financial services client. The leaders in this organization created an Agile Champions team whose mission was to nurture the new Agile teams and to protect them from the broader organization. Rather than call themselves the Agile Champions, they called themselves the “Ozone Layer” because of the way they protected the teams.
They recognized that introducing Agile and Scrum was a change that the organization might fight or reject. They described the forces in the organization that was opposed to the change to Agile as “agile antibodies” and recognized the need to shield the teams from those forces.
These agile antibodies – things like bureaucracy or political infighting – could attack and bring the Agile teams to their knees if left unchecked. So, the leaders formed this protective layer called the Ozone Layer around the teams that kept the agile antibodies out.
Great leaders create the context where teams can do their best work. Rather than lament “the way things work around here”, Agile Leaders will actively work to improve things. That is the focus of the following section.
Every organization has impediments or friction that slow work down and sap productivity. Most organizations have grown so accustomed to living with them and don’t even see them anymore. Impediments slow things down, reduce morale and productivity and can become a huge waste of people’s life energy.
Some examples of organizational impediments include:
Great leaders help the teams by allocating resources and attacking these types of impediments and thereby freeing up the teams to do their best work. Many will create a backlog of these impediments and begin to systematically address them.
Here are some other ways that leaders can remove friction:
Reduce bureaucracy – Many organizational processes go unchallenged, in particular those that involve approvals and decisions. Leaders can find ways to identify those that slow teams and then eliminate them or push decision-making down.
Similarly, if there are approval processes, can managers get out of the way and let teams decide?
Earlier we mentioned the value stream map and how leaders might use that to understand the time it takes to go from idea to production. That time is called cycle time and for most organizations, that is anywhere from 12 months to over 24 months. That doesn’t sound very agile, does it?
What is the cost of that time? One way to measure that is the cost of delay. If each new idea takes on average of 18 months, what is the value lost if a competitor launches a feature in less time? What is the value of a 1-month reduction in delay? These are considerations that leaders need to make.
Contributing to that overall ‘concept to cash’ timeline is not just development, where most people tend to focus. In many organizations, development by a technology team may only be 3 of 18 months. The rest of the delay is due to overhead and bureaucracy in planning, taking on too much work at the same time, and lack of automation or long release cycles after things have been built.
The key here is not that there is one solution for every organization. It is for leaders to work with teams to understand how the work gets done, or more accurately, how customer value is created in the organization. Without an awareness of the starting point, improvement is not possible.
How well does your organization support Agile Ways of Working? Is there transparency regarding what people are working on? Are the agile teams actually able to sit and work face-to-face?
Many organizations set up team spaces or collaboration rooms to provide a place for agile teams to focus and work together. Studies have shown that these team rooms double team productivity. Nevertheless, many organizations resist the idea of putting teams together.
This is also directly related to not assigning people to multiple teams. And it relates to building teams that are co-located vs. distributed all over the globe.
Co-Locating Teams provide the following:
In most organizations, the human resources function needs to be changed to align it with agile ways of working. Some of the key considerations include:
The great leaders that I saw succeed with Agile Transformations were also excellent collaborators. They built bridges across the organization, sought input and ideas from everyone, and allowed others to participate in decision-making.
They modeled the behavior that they wanted their agile teams to follow. Rather than letting silos impede the productivity and responsiveness of the organization, they reached across the silos and encouraged communication and cooperation. This level of collaboration is absolutely necessary to get the change to stick.
Great leaders become great coaches and see their role as not only inspiring people but coaching them to success. Key Aspects of coaching include the following:
There is one leadership anti-pattern and that is the command and control leadership style. Command and control is easy and has succeeded for years. However, it increasingly fails with knowledge workers.
Are you a command and control leader? Let’s use the short survey below to quickly measure your level of command and control-ism. As you read each question, decide if you could answer each with a yes or a no. Think about work and how you would respond for the majority of the time.
So how did you do? If you scored three or fewer Yes responses, congratulations, you are doing quite well. If you scored four to six Yes responses, you are doing well but could be doing better. And if you had more than 6 yeses, empowering and trusting your team is going to be difficult but could have huge payoffs.
By the way, if you really want to get an accurate feel for how you are doing as a leader, use this PDF of the above questions to survey your employees, team members, other subordinates, and peers. Provided your employees feel comfortable giving you feedback, you will come away with a much more accurate view of how much you rely on command and control. Just download and print the form below.
I had an interesting experience at a company recently where I observed that the managers were micro-managing their employees. This extended to even how their employees completed the exercise in our Agile Training Class!
I wrote about this in Stop Hovering over Your High-Performance Teams The bottom line is to step back from the teams. Don’t tell teams what to do or hover over them. Instead, let them figure it out, even if that means making mistakes.
And on your part, focus on the more strategic parts of the job you were hired to do. If you are busy directing the employees, you probably aren’t focused on the things we are outlining here in this blog.
One of the most underutilized tools in the Agile Leaders toolkit is the question. Asking great questions is a powerful way to lead an Agile Transformation and nurture high-performing teams.
Done well, this style of leadership moves from directing, telling, and commanding to one of curiosity, learning, and adaptation. And it is a style that anyone can learn to use effectively. Read more about asking great questions in this related post.
If you are going to ask great questions, you need to be there to listen. So many of us struggle with listening because we are ready to jump in and solve the problem or share how we solved it previously. Rarely are we supporting people when we are telling them the answer.
A better approach is to listen with empathy. We do this by suspending our own judgment and resisting the impulse to give advice. We might respond with something like “that sounds challenging” or “what do you think you should do?”.
Great leaders will expect great things from their people. This in itself can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. If leaders have done their part and gotten the best people on the Agile teams, they can turn them loose and expect great things. Generally, leaders with high expectations are Theory Y managers.
They think the best of people and believe that if they provide the right conditions, people will grow, accept a challenge, and outperform their expectations. These leaders use coaching and mentoring skills and ask powerful questions to help people and teams succeed.
It may sound odd to mention that leaders make it safe to fail. The reality is that without a safe-to-fail environment, innovation and creativity will be stifled. Learning and growth will also slow unless people see and experience safety.
Leaders can start by sharing their own failures. When leaders are vulnerable to their own failures, they show that it is OK to make mistakes and fail occasionally. Teams that fail and recover are stronger than those that do not. It is only by making it safe to experiment will leaders unleash the innovation and creativity of their teams.
Of course, you don’t want the company crashing or key customers lost to mistakes. A safe-to-fail environment is not one where people screw up on purpose. And leaders will often need to establish an appropriate “blast radius” for failure so that individuals and teams don’t inadvertently put the company at risk.
Agile leaders are the key to the organizational change to Agile. Here are some tools and approaches they might use:
It’s important to appreciate the difficulty of introducing lasting change in organizations. The status quo is a formidable opponent.
In his book Leading Change, John Kotter outlines 8 elements of a successful change program. Leveraging this model will help the organizational change effort succeed.
Details on how to do each of these are beyond the scope of this blog. However, we will touch on three that are critical – Urgency, Coalition, and Vision.
Establishing a sense of urgency is a critical part of any agile transformation campaign.
The challenge is, most organizations don’t have a clear “burning platform” that they can identify. They are like the proverbial frog in the water that is slowly being heated up to boiling.
Ironically, most organizations today are facing increased global competition unlike that of any other time period. One doesn’t have to look far for companies that once dominated their industry and since have been either shuttered entirely or in serious decline. Blockbuster, Borders Books, and Kodak are three that come easily to mind. Companies like Uber, Airbnb, and Amazon are disrupting new industries in relatively short periods of time. It is only the nimblest, err Agile Companies that are going to survive and thrive.
Agile Leaders cannot afford to go it alone. Most form some sort of team to help lead and guide the change efforts. These organizations can take various names – the term “Agile Champions Team” is one that I like the most. Names that I would avoid include Agile PMO and Agile Center of Excellence; they have too much baggage.
Whatever you call it, the coalition should include those who are passionate about Agile. Any early adopters would be good candidates, as would those who have prior experience, training, and certification. Most organizations have at least a few people with skills and expertise.
The leaders I know who have succeeded with Agile Transformations have been great at developing and casting a vision for change. They have an end goal for the organization and they help to paint the picture for everyone else in the organization.
They also appreciate the magnitude of the challenge and allocate appropriate resources to make sure that the change can occur.
The vision needs to be a compelling reason for the change to Agile and it needs to be communicated broadly, repeatedly, and in a way that engages the team members and solicits their feedback.
One leader that comes to mind that was good at this, provided training, encouraged widespread experimentation, and conducted monthly town hall meetings to recast the vision and get feedback on how things were working.
I have also seen examples where leaders were ineffective in casting vision. A CIO at one client stated at the beginning of a calendar year that by the end of the year, 30% of all projects would be run using Agile. That wasn’t much of a vision, and, he did not champion the vision. He also failed to allocate any resources to that “vision” so the people in the organization struggled to make any steps toward the goal. That is not the vision I am talking about.
Based on what I’ve experienced, I’ve learned to ask questions about the vision leaders have. Here are some examples of questions that I have found helpful.
Questions like this start to give me an idea of how likely it will be that the organization can actually adopt or transform to be agile. Or becoming more agile if they have already begun a transformation.
Note that questions alone are insufficient. I also want to observe and talk with team members who are on the ground to see how engaged and empowered they are. I want to take the temperature of the organization, and begin to understand the culture. I want to see if what the leaders say matches what is the reality for those who are closest to the work.
In order to effectively cast the vision for the change to Agile, Leaders need to truly understand Agile. Many Agile Transformations run into a brick wall shortly after getting underway. That brick wall is the leadership team and their lack of understanding. You can’t proclaim that everyone else will be agile without starting your own agile journey!
While most leaders will say they want all the benefits of Agile they may unknowingly act in ways that undercut the agile teams. The attitude of some leaders seems to be one of impatience or intolerance of agile approaches.
Going first means learning about Agile and Scrum. Leaders should take the Agile training that the team members will take. They need to understand Lean and Agile Principles and organizational change. Learn more about the importance of leaders adopting the agile mindset in this HBR article, or hear directly from another leader in this video interview with Technology Leader David Sohmer – How Technology Managers Can Succeed as Agile Leaders.
In our next section, we will transition from the things Agile Leaders do to the characteristics that they need to possess.
So, in addition to tenacity and grit, leaders need a clear why. But what other characteristics do they need? Reflecting on the great Agile leaders that I know, a few key leadership traits that come to mind are as follows.
We will explore each of these further in the sections that follow.
Carol Dweck wrote about the growth mindset and fixed mindset in her 1995 book, Mindset. In short, the fixed mindset believes that intelligence is fixed and avoids making mistakes or other things that would lead to learning. The growth mindset acts as if anything can be learned and doesn’t fear making mistakes or revealing their ignorance.
Leaders with a growth mindset tend to experiment. They want to test and learn and then iterate quickly. They create an environment where it is safe to fail.
Leaders must be self-aware. This means that they are both aware of their strengths and weaknesses, but also aware of their emotional state. The emotions they bring to the individuals and teams they lead can either inspire or demoralize.
You can learn techniques to improve your self-awareness in my book Emotional Intelligence for Project Managers.
Great leaders take personal responsibility for the outcomes and results they create. They don’t blame others when things don’t go their way, they reflect on it, learn from their experience, and try again. They see themselves as the authors of their experiences and outcomes. Likewise, they refrain from blaming the people and teams they support.
Extreme ownership is the title of a recent book by former Navy Seal Jocko Willink. Willink writes about leadership and winning as a Navy Seal team. He coined the term “extreme ownership” based on the principle of taking personal responsibility for every outcome for the teams he led.
He rejected the idea that outside forces or people were to blame for what happened to his team. Rather than blame, he contends that great leaders take ownership of the results and learn from them.
When leaders take this type of ownership, they show that it is OK to make mistakes and fail occasionally. Teams that fail and recover are stronger than those that do not. It is only by making it safe to experiment will leaders unleash the innovation and creativity of their teams.
Great leaders keep their egos in check, are humble and open to feedback. They take in criticism and rather than defend, they demonstrate curiosity and openness. They are able to make self-effacing jokes.
Agile leaders tend to be great listeners who show empathy toward others. They don’t cut others off or interrupt. They make others feel valued. They show that they are able to empathize and put themselves in the shoes of others. They show that they genuinely care about people.
Leaders need to demonstrate courage in the face of risks. As mentioned earlier, an Agile Transformation is a major program of change and that can be risky. Also, for agile teams to succeed, leaders need to create an environment where it is OK to fail and to learn. This can be risky in an organization that doesn’t have any tolerance for failure. (Which also means that the organization doesn’t have a tolerance for learning).
The best Agile leaders empower and then trust the people that they lead. This particular characteristic ties directly to one of my favorite agile principles:
Build projects around motivated individuals. Give them the environment and the support they need, and trust them to get the job done.
Great leaders also collaborate across the organization and build trust that reduces or eliminates silos and turf battles. They encourage and reward teamwork, rather than sowing dissension or creating an “us and them” mentality.
A key lean principle is about avoiding sub-optimization. Great Agile Leaders have the ability to see the entire organization and focus on optimizing the whole, rather than one small part.
A quick web search will show how popular it is to try and motivate others. There is a classic HBR article on this topic by Frederic Hertzberg called, One More time: How Do You Motivate Employees? I even wrote about it in this blog post, How Do You Motivate Agile Teams to Become High-Performing Teams?
Motivating is the wrong approach. Today’s knowledge workers are motivated intrinsically, not extrinsically. Rather than trying to motivate others, we should provide the context for them to do their best work. And then leaders focus on inspiring others, especially when it comes to change.
You may find it surprising that Managers and Leaders are often the biggest impediments to transformation. It is an interesting conundrum – managers and leaders say they want to be more Agile, yet they are often the ones who hinder adoption or transformation. It is a lot like me saying that I want to get 6-pack abs but I don’t want to exercise or eat healthy food. What I say is not aligned with my actions.
So why do I say that managers are putting on the brakes of Agile? Well, first it’s because it is what I’ve seen happen at one organization after another. Managers and leaders control what is happening – directly or indirectly.
Second, surveys say so. The VersionOne Annual State of Agile Report in particular has a question about barriers to further Agile adoption. Respondents continue to point to the leadership when it comes to inhibiting agile adoption.
The chart below shows the responses from the 16th Annual State of Agile Report conducted in 2022. It is interesting to look at the “barriers” identified by organizations and how many of them tie back to the leadership.
I met with some of the agile transformation champions at a client recently and they asked for my help. They were striving to lead agility in their organization and were supporting their teams to improve and mature their practices. Unfortunately, they found that their teams had hit a brick wall and were not progressing.
That brick wall was the executive leadership team. The management team said they wanted the benefits of Agile but frequently acted in ways that undercut the agile teams. The attitude of the leadership team seems to be, “we’ll tolerate Agile as long as everyone meets the deadlines and gets all the work done”.
We’ll tolerate Agile as long as everyone meets the deadlines and gets all the work done.
Does that sound Agile or effective to you? More importantly, does it sound familiar?
The champions team wanted to enroll my help to make a fact and data-based argument. They wanted the executive leadership team to change the way they were behaving to be more Agile friendly; to stop doing some things and start doing others.
Here is the list of items that they wanted the leadership to stop doing, and the corresponding list of items that they wanted the leadership to start doing.
In the previous example, I think leaders were just too busy to focus on transformation. Most leaders are under pressure to do more with less and to show short-term results. Agile transformation is a long-term investment. Most executives don’t have the time to wait for Agile teams to develop or to learn how to best support an Agile team. See my related post, Agile Transformations take too long – A Cautionary Tale.
I don’t think most leaders really understand transformation. Few leaders take the time to attend Agile training. Most already know all about agile (sigh) and so don’t believe they need any Agile or Scrum training (though in reality, they do need Agile Training). They espouse Agile and give it lip service, but they don’t effectively support it. Nor do they live it.
These leaders are governing how much growth the teams will have. The teams are only going to be able to mature to a certain point and then they will hit the wall.
It’s a recognizable enough pattern that Agile Transformation expert Michael Sahota talked about it in my recent Certified Agile Leader Course (which I highly recommend, BTW). He said:
The Consciousness of the Leader is the Limit (for Agile)
— Michael Sahota
The general rule seems to be that the level of consciousness of an organization cannot exceed the level of consciousness of its leader.
— Frederic Laloux
This rule that the leader is the limit to development in organizations has a couple of powerful implications:
If the leadership team is not on board, there is little that individuals on the lower rungs of the organization can do to make agile stick or for an effective Agile Transformation.
If you want to make a major change in an organization, like Agile Transformation, the leadership team needs to understand and champion the change.
Literally, agile transformation leaders need to go in front of the change. They do this by investing in their own Agile learning and growth.
If you are a leader who wants to gain the benefits of business agility, flexibility, and team productivity, it is within your reach. Though we recognize that an Agile Transformation is not easy or painless, it is within your power to help Agile succeed. The way out is to lead through the change and go first with your own transformation.
If you are currently leading or planning an Agile Transformation, we want to help. If you have questions or need support, we are ready to help now! Put down this article and call us immediately at 312-767-7691. Or you can email us at: support@VitalityChicago.com.
If learning more about agile and agile transformation is your next step, please check out our pages on Agile Training and the Agile Coaching and Agile Transformation page. You might also find our detailed article on things to consider when planning an Agile Transformation. Another great article is How Agile Leaders Create Business Agility.
Another great resource for you is our interview with Technology Leader David Sohmer. Learn directly from another leader what it takes to succeed in How Technology Managers Can Succeed as Agile Leaders
If you want to learn how to lead and coach Agile teams, I would encourage you to check out our Leading and Coaching Agile Teams course.
If you are looking for blueprints and detailed guides to plan your transformation, please read success with your Agile Transformation. If you want to learn how others have succeeded with Agile and Scrum, read how Bank of America succeeded with their Agile Transformation, or Highland Solutions succeeded with their Agile Transformation.
If you want to stay on top of trends in Agile-related topics, you can join our mailing list to receive our monthly newsletter with practical information on Agile and Scrum and various techniques to help you succeed with Agile. Join Our Monthly Newsletter
Like our Command and Control Litmus Test? Check out our other blogs that have similar free downloads: